The Deeper Meaning of the Communion of Saints

Have you ever noticed how God is never depicted as alone in heaven?

Take the vision in Isaiah 6, where the prophet glimpses God seated on his throne, flanked by a chorus of seraphim singing of His holiness. Then there is the majestic vision of Daniel 7:

As I watched,
Thrones were set up
and the Ancient of Days took his throne.
His clothing was white as snow,
the hair on his head like pure wool;
His throne was flames of fire,
with wheels of burning fire.
A river of fire surged forth,
flowing from where he sat;
Thousands upon thousands were ministering to him,
and myriads upon myriads stood before him.
The court was convened, and the books were opened (verses 9 to 10).

This motif carries over in the New Testament in the scenes of heaven in Revelation. For example there’s this in Revelation 7:

After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands (verse 9).

In Dante’s Paradiso, the theme of heaven as a densely populated place is developed further. This is especially borne out in the illustrations done for the text by the great nineteenth century French artist Gustave Dore. For example, in one image the souls of holy warriors are clinging to the cross. In another the souls of righteous souls cluster together in the shape of a flying eagle. In yet another a veritable multitude of saints very much like that seen in Revelation flock together in the form of a giant rose. Here is how Dante describes it:

That sacred army, that Christ espoused with his blood, displayed itself in the form of a white rose, but the Angel other, that sees and sings the glory, of him who inspires it with love, as it flies, and sings the excellence that has made it as it is, descended continually into the great flower, lovely with so many petals, and climbed again to where its love lives ever, like a swarm of bees, that now plunges into the flowers, and now returns, to where their labor is turned to sweetness.

Their faces were all of living flame, their wings of gold, and the rest of them so white that snow never reached that limit. When they dropped into the flower, they offered, to tier on tier, the peace and ardor that they acquired with beating wings: and the presence of such a vast flying swarm between the flower and what was beyond it, did not dilute the vision or the splendor: because the Divine Light so penetrates the Universe, to the measure of its Value, that nothing has the power to prevent it. This kingdom, safe and happy, crowded with ancient peoples and the new, had sight and Love all turned towards one point (Paradiso, 31:1-27).

Consider this for a moment: would it not be weird if God was depicted as a singular figure enthroned in heaven? It’d be weird in the first place because where else would all the holy souls be but near to God? But it’d be odd for another reason as well: it is impossible for God to be alone. This is because God is a Trinity of three persons. God is, in other words, a perfect communion.

In the above translation, Dante actually refers to heaven as ‘crowded.’ This could be read simply as a quantitative statement but it is also qualitative—it indicates something about the nature of reality in heaven. When we think of heaven as a place with souls crowded together, another phrase comes to mind: the communion of saints. This communion of saints is a fitting reflection of the triune God.

It also points to the nature of the good.

In his commentary on the creed, this is how St. Thomas Aquinas interprets the meaning of the communion of saints:

As in our natural body the operation of one member works for the good of the entire body, so also is it with a spiritual body, such as is the Church. Because all the faithful are one body, the good of one member is communicated to another.

More to the point, one could say the good is communicative. It is social. This fundamental truth becomes clearer when we contrast these visions of a crowded heaven with the hell that is described in C.S. Lewis’ Great Divorce. There, in contrast to the classic conception of hell as place of everlasting fire, with demons torturing sinful souls for eternity, the hell of Lewis is quite the drab and dreary place. It is a ‘place’ of total social isolation, where residents spend eternity moving farther and farther apart from each other.

Heaven is the opposite of this.

In contrast with hell, in heaven, all souls move closer together—and together closer to God. If this sounds strange or even impossible, remember what the Church teaches us about the nature and attributes of God. To paraphrase St. Gregory of Nyssa, we can never exhaust our fill of the infinite beauty and goodness of God. He fills us to the point of overflowing and yet there is always more to desire. And this inexhaustibility of God is beautifully reflected in that fact that He draws to Himself a communion of seemingly innumerable saints.

image: YingHui Liu / Shutterstock.com

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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